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Design Doctrine: 2000s—San Francisco Federal Building

By Elizabeth Milnarik

“Major emphasis should be placed on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.” —Moynihan’s “Guiding Principles”

In designing the San Francisco Federal Building, Morphosis principal Thom Mayne, FAIA, took sustainability as his central design challenge. Completed in 2008 as a part of GSA’s Design Excellence Program, the building transforms the tools and performance of energy savings into a true aesthetic, while also creating a healthy workplace and a welcoming public spaces in a way that expands Moynihan’s principles to meet 21st-century concerns.

Composed of an 18-story office tower, lower annex, and one-story café, the buildings define a central plaza. Challenged to slash the expected power consumption by 50 percent, Morphosis, working with Ove Arup & Partners, developed a number of strategies. In the tower, translucent panels shade the northwest façade, while a perforated metal skin minimizes solar heat gain on the southeast side. A system monitors temperatures, controls mechanical equipment, and adjusts windows, vents, and sunscreens. Some individual gathering rooms are air conditioned, but the tower itself is not, making it the first unair-conditioned GSA office in five decades. The office tower’s narrow footprint, floor-to-ceiling windows, and glazed partitions mean that 85 percent of the building receives natural light, cutting lighting loads by more than a quarter. Broad stair landings and open floor plans allow for breezes and sunshine, but also encourage people to meet accidentally, share ideas, and widen their network of colleagues.

After the events of 9/11, Moynihan continued to express the importance of maintaining openness in federal facilities. Without it, these buildings project the aura of a fearful and paranoid society—values strongly opposed to the “Guiding Principles” Moynihan created. Although the San Francisco’s Federal Building addresses issues Moynihan could not have imagined in 1962, his “Guiding Principles’” call to excellence informed Mayne’s design and ambition for the building, and will continue to do so for Mayne’s colleagues and successors far into the future.

Back to Design Doctrine: Five GSA Case Studies >


San Francisco Federal Building. Image courtesy of Taylor Lednum, GSA’s Design Excellence and the Arts.


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Back to AIArchitect July 27, 2012

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